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5:11 pm
Thu August 15, 2013

Students Return To School In Moore, Okla., As City Rebuilds

Originally published on Thu August 15, 2013 5:43 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

For students in Moore, Oklahoma it's not just new backpacks and pencils this year. For many, it's entirely new schools and homes. A tornado ripped through the community nearly three months ago. It destroyed two schools, killed seven students and 18 other people in the city. And tomorrow, students return to class.

Rachel Hubbard, of member station KOSU, checks in with Moore to see how the community is doing.

RACHEL HUBBARD, BYLINE: The lobby of Emmaus Baptist Church is controlled chaos. Boxes of books, computers, gym equipment pile up to be distributed as it becomes the temporary Briarwood Elementary School.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, that's the better part...

HUBBARD: Teachers, volunteers, students are everywhere. And in the middle of it all is Chris Combs. She's been the school's secretary for 20 years and she knows the answers to all the questions.

CHRIS COMBS: What time does the start now? Where is this going to be at now? You know, what time is lunch? Are they going to do lunch?

HUBBARD: At least she used to know all the answers. Cheering on teachers, encouraging students, Chris Combs is one of the school's biggest boosters. But when the tornado ripped through the Briarwood neighborhood, it literally turned her life upside down. Her neighborhood was demolished. But there was no time to focus on her losses, so she started working and she hasn't stopped.

COMBS: I cannot sit still, that I have to be going all the time. I've not watched probably more than maybe 10 hours of TV the entire summer. I can't focus on it.

HUBBARD: When you live and work in an obliterated neighborhood, there's really no escape. Combs used to watch the trees blowing in the breeze from her bedroom window, but those trees are gone. So she keeps the blinds closed to shut out the constant reminders of destruction. It's bizarre and its ugly but it's still home.

COMBS: Everyday, like, I just drove through there at lunch, you know, I stopped at my mailbox and I thought - I just get depressed, how you look at it and it's depressing and I think I do want to live here anymore. But my kids grew up in my house.

HUBBARD: When you drive through it does seem overwhelming. As the city moves into long-term recovery, the armies of volunteers have given way to heavy machinery removing the final piles of debris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

HUBBARD: Now the only thing that's left is the Oklahoma red dirt and a few trees that look like chewed up toothpicks. For a moment it seems hopeless, but then you talk to Moore city manager Steve Eddy. He's been through this recovery process twice.

STEVE EDDY: It might look like a vast wasteland. But to us, it looks like opportunity ready to go.

HUBBARD: And in many cases, that opportunity has started. Around 10 percent of the 1,000 homes and businesses destroyed have begun to rebuild or have the permits to do so. WR Moore already has the walls up on a house in the Plaza Towers neighborhood.

EDDY: Before the average home in here was worth about $90,000. Now the average home will be worth probably 150, 160.

HUBBARD: The area will also have two new elementary schools, this time with storm shelters. Some volunteers from around the country are still here. And every day, there are moments of joy, like the first house being rebuilt for a 75-year-old widow.

EDDY: To see that house coming up out of everything around it, still looking rather rough looking, it just reminded me of a little flower coming up out of the - an area of destruction.

HUBBARD: City officials expect half the homeowners to rebuild. But these neighborhoods were filled with working class people, many of whom were not the well insured. Some can't afford to rebuild even though they want to stay. In those cases, the city is working with FEMA and charities to try to help them return to Moore.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Hubbard in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.